Most professions have key performance indicators that are shared across different business models to help measure success. This is not the case when it comes to sports performance where multiple variables are at play, and there is no universal system to quantify work and results on an ongoing basis. Measuring success in strength and conditioning can be achieved with technology, proper coaching, and utilizing data to achieve desired outcomes.
In January 2015, Penn became Sparta Science’s 11th University partner. Fast forward three years, and what we have been able to accomplish with four full time strength coaches, 33 varsity sports, and 947 athletes is remarkable: stronger, more resilient athletes, less injuries, and more wins.
We have the unique opportunity to validate our results using Sparta through our research partnership with Penn Sports Medicine. Our team physician, Dr. Brian Sennett (Chief of Sports Medicine, and Vice Chairman for the Department of Orthopedic surgery) is collecting data provided by the strength and conditioning staff implementing force plate assessments, which ultimately supports our role in identifying and fulfilling athlete needs in the weight room.
The information gathered from vertical jump results for performance and injury prevention was met with skepticism by many, including Dr. Sennett, who set out to prove that our population of Ivy League athletes would fit the athletic profiles validated by Sparta. In order to assess whether our athletes t-scores are representative of the average Load, Explode, Drive, all jumps were analyzed and confirm what Sparta has validated: Vertical jump assessment does differentiate fundamental athletic movements.
Ongoing additional research is conducted by Penn Sports Medicine, and several studies investigated if force plate assessments can predict lower extremity injuries. Again, results support the ability to identify athletes at risk for lower extremity injuries, and specifically ACL injuries.
Most notably, we looked at team success of “Users” and “Non-users” comparing results pre and post-Sparta. We identified 12 teams as “Users” who have been consistent with the vertical jump assessment frequently. Looking at the past academic year (2017-18), 9 out of the 12 teams, or 75% who use Sparta finished in the top half of the Ivy League!
So how have we managed to achieve this success?
Our staff uses results to influence training by focusing on improving each athlete’s Movement Signature weakness. This is accomplished in a few ways, but is also influenced by sport coaches, team standards, where the team is in the season, and several other factors. Programming varies by sport and strength coach, but I can say with confidence that our staff largely ascribes to the basics—pushing, pulling, plyometrics, squats, deadlifts, power cleans/jumping, and variations of each. These exercises closely align, or match the movements that Sparta has been able to prove are most effective when it comes to building healthier athlete profiles.
Strategies to improve performance vary by sport. Three teams identified as “users”—Women’s Lacrosse, Track & Field vertical jumps (high jump and pole vault), and Men’s Squash—have committed to testing the force plates, yet their programming in the weight room differs.
Women’s Lacrosse is annually a top 20 team that has struggled in the past with ACL and other soft tissue injuries that sideline players for the season. Since we began using Sparta, there have been no new ACL tears and continued success with greater athlete availability. The athletes assess on the force plate once every 3-4 weeks, and workouts are assigned to incorporate movements our staff selected to target an athlete’s weakness. The team lifts twice a week year-round and has been consistent with individualized workouts logged through Sparta’s software. With our most recent vertical jump assessment, the team shows 88% Readiness (% athletes without high injury risk), 97% Scan Saturation (% of athletes who scanned in the last 30 days), and an Average Sparta Score of 79 (a combination of injury risk and performance based on Load, Explode, and Drive). The team is currently 6-0.
The Vertical Jumps group in Track & Field lifts three days per week during the fall semester, and twice a week in the spring. The group assesses on the force plate every 4 weeks. Since these athletes will test 1-RM for exercises like cleans and squats, I have not utilized the Sparta software to program workouts. Instead, I will add supplementary exercises to the workouts for individual athletes based on their force plate results with the intent to improve any weakness. This has been the most successful Track & Field event group at Penn for the last 6 years.
Men’s Squash is a team in whose athletes do not typically have a strength training background. The force plate been beneficial in getting athlete buy in—they have been taught what the force plate measures, why they should lift, how it will help them on court, and appreciate the ability track their own results. Every 4 weeks, at the start of a team workout, they warm-up and test the vertical jump assessment. Similar to women’s lacrosse, training is individualized and athletes record their workouts, but they may only lift once a week depending on matches. They finished the 2018-19 season 14-4 after multiple weeks ranked No. 1 by College Squash Association, with no major injuries.
The force plate has been a useful tool in allowing us to identify needs, and more effectively program across a diversity of sports. Regardless of the training variables we change to be both efficient and effective with our time, let’s not forget the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). An athletes’ Movement Signature will reflect what they do most. When a team is in-season, both practicing and competing with an allotted 20 hours of sports participation, we may only have 10% of that time in the weight room - and those two hours must be optimized.
Performance Coaches must understand how to utilize this technology, and be proficient in teaching athletes to execute movements to produce the desired training adaptations. Relationships with sport coaches enable us to implement this testing as we see fit, and trust that we are on the same page as we aim to build better athletes.
The ability to demonstrate cost savings, the improvement in team success, and increased athlete availability secondary to fewer injuries is huge. The knowledge of what we are measuring, why we change training methods, and how we can improve performance while reducing injuries allows for better communication and shared understanding of the impact we can have in the weight room.
Watch Q&A with Tracy Zimmer
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